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16) Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson

Bryson is an American who has lived in England for many years. This book was written in 1994, and shows its age in some respects (reference to the excellent railway system, jokes about Princess Margaret, Princess Diana and the Queen Mother) but remains a very affectionate take on England and the English by a near-insider. At times his prose rises to the hysterically funny, as in his comparison of the contents of American and British women's magazines in the early 1970s (I hope none of the knitters reading this will take offence):
The articles in my mother's and sister's magazines were always about sex and personal gratification. They had titles like 'Eat Your Way to Multiple Orgasms', 'Office Sex - How to Get it', 'Tahiti: The Hot New Place for Sex' and 'Those Shrinking Rainforests - Are They Any Good for Sex?' The British magazines addressed more modest aspirations. They had titles like 'Knit Your Own Twinset', 'Money-Saving Button Offer', Make This Super Knitted Soap-Saver' and 'Summer's Here - It's Time for Mayonnaise!'
There are some other good one-liners too, such as this on a scientifically interesting part of Dorset:
The Studland peninsula is well known as the only place where you can see all seven British reptiles - the grass snake, smooth snake, adder, slow worm, common lizard, sand lizard and Michael Portillo.
(Note for younger and non-British readers - Portillo was a smirking right-wing politician who seemed a real danger back in 1994, but has since both mellowed and faded from view.)

Bryson is particularly good on architecture, and excoriates the concreting-over of city centres and the worst excrescences of the twentieth century. Here he is on the Warden's Quarters of Merton College, Oxford:
What a remarkable series of improbabilities were necessary to its construction. First, some architect had to design it, had to wander through a city steeped in 800 years of architectural tradition, and with great care conceive of a structure that looked like a toaster with windows. Then a committee of finely educated minds at Merton had to show the most extraordinary indifference to their responsibilities to posterity and say to themselves, 'You know, we've been putting up handsome buildings since 1264; let's have an ugly one for a change.' Then the planning authorities had to say, 'Well, why not? Plenty worse in Basildon.'
He's also very good on hotels, landscapes, food and the general impressions made by a place on the new arrival. He's not very good at getting sympathetic stories from people; most of the characters described in depth are lunatically unhelpful transport officials or hoteliers.

He's also not very good outside England. The Scottish section of the book is surprisingly dull, and the Welsh bits actually offensive (remarks about Asperger's Syndrome, Parkinson's disease, place names that sound like a cat bringing up a hairball). Thank God he didn't take in Northern Ireland in his trip.

Anyway, a book that did make me laugh out loud several times, but more in its first half than in its second.

Top UnSuggestion for this book: A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, by Gilles Deleuze.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 28th, 2006 09:53 am (UTC)
I found that his knee-jerk reactions against modern architecture got old very quickly. Oxford is full of great modern buildings which he didn't acknowledge. Although he's fairly perceptive, it does seem like he arrived in England with a fixed idea of what it should be like, rooted in its past, and could never quite forgive it for being something slightly different.

Also, as you say, his assumption of stupidity or ill-will on the part of everyone else is a bit adolescent.

Dec. 28th, 2006 10:25 am (UTC)
Those are problems I'm grateful you've alerted me to, for all that I adore the man - mostly for the companion volume, Notes from a Big Country. That one really had me aching with the desire to have written it myself, as he hit right every single note about being a long-term expat returning to the US.

(Maybe I should reread it sometime and see if it holds up. If, that is, it's not too painful due to time-binding issues of a mostly political nature.)
(no subject) - gummitch - Dec. 28th, 2006 10:45 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 28th, 2006 01:37 pm (UTC)
I read Notes from a Small Island when I'd been living in England for about five years, as have most of the North Americans (and Aussies/New Zealanders) of my acquaintance who live here. General consensus is that he has the English-speaking expat experience in England pretty well captured. There were bits that I found mean-spirited (it's been a while, but a mining community in County Durham comes to mind) but he's so funny I forgive him for it.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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